“Chris Farnham and the Enema Bandit”
[This is a section from the larger story where a fellow newly-minted PhD gives the performance of his life, under bizarre circumstances signaled in the title above.]
In 1965 the University of Illinois’s English Department made offers to twenty recent PhDs, myself included, expecting one, perhaps two to accept in what was then a seller’s market. By some surreal coincidence, however, fifteen of those twenty accepted the offer, and the department was suddenly overwhelmed with new Assistant Professors. We were a diverse group, some of us to enjoy such relative fame as the scholarly world confers, others to perish by not publishing, a few to leave a research university and find happiness at a junior college where teachers were judged on their work in the classroom rather than in the pages of a scholarly journal. Fourteen of the fifteen of us quickly bonded, young Turks, eyed at first suspiciously by older members of the department, and later accepted.
As the would-be young Shakespearean, who had published the grand total of one article and not on the master but a minor Elizabethan dramatist, my own debut was not auspicious. The senior Shakespearean, a man of great erudition who had written numerous books, was retiring, though to say I was there to take his place would be a gross distortion. Rather, the distinguished elder scholar was leaving to spend his sunset years in southern Illinois, and the brash young Harvard PhD was . . . well . . . was simply there, without any reputation, and time alone would see what became of him.
I dutifully called the senior Shakespearean my first day in Urbana, asking if I could come by to pay my respects. The voice on the other end of the phone was tinged with what struck me as that affectation of boredom you might find on the lips of one of Oscar Wilde’s aristocrats. He let forth a gruff “My library study at 3,” without so much as a preface of “What about meeting me in . . . .” Still, I was at the bottom rung and in awe of the academic hierarchy which stretched from the green and un-tenured Assistant Professor who had six years to prove himself or herself, to the Associate Professor admitted to the exclusive club of the tenured but at present only as a junior partner, to the Olympian heights of Full Professor. His library study at 3 it would be.
That afternoon, five minutes before the appointed hour I stood before his door and at ten seconds to three knocked politely. After several minutes he bellowed out, “Come in!” There the great man sat, his back to me as he gazed out the window onto the plaza below, the rectangular office lined with bookshelves packed to the gills.
“It’s me, Sidney Homan.” A silence. “The new man.” I cringed at having wrenched grammar with that “me,” and the cliché of “the new man.”
“I already know that, Mr. Homan.”
He still offered nothing but his back, remaining in that position for the next five minutes as I desperately tried to make conversation and, what is more, to get him to turn around. To no available. I had depleted the available topics—my boyhood in Philadelphia, undergraduate years at Princeton, graduate work at Harvard, writing my dissertation under the direction of his counterpart, Alfred Harbage, my excitement “as an Easterner coming out to the Midwest.” Like unwanted lint, each topic was brushed off with a curt “I see” or—even worse—a “So?” I was desperate and desperate times demanded that I stoop to base flattery.
“Sir, you’ve written so many extraordinary books about Shakespeare that I suppose in the course of your career you must have seen hundreds, perhaps even thousands of productions.
A silence. Then he turned around! His expression was grim.
“I’ve never seen a production of Shakespeare in my life, Mr. Homan.” Then he added, “Never will.”
“But, sir, why wouldn’t you . . . I mean, how couldn’t you . . . that is, I mean to say, I can’t believe that you haven’t seen productions. Not a single one?”
“Not one, Mr. Homan?”
“But why, sir, why?”
His answer came from somewhere deep down in his soul, the answer unrelieved by sarcasm, let alone irony.
“Because I wouldn’t want any mere director or actor to spoil my ideal conception of the playwright.”
I can’t remember the rest of the conversation—it was that inconsequential, for I was stunned by the confession that to him was, instead, a badge of pride. Within minutes I was making excuses to leave his office. This would be the only time we spoke.